Tomorrow night is when I think we'll see the real start of the "Dale Hunter Era" for the Washington Capitals. Tomorrow's game against the Philadelphia Flyers comes as the first game since Dale Hunter took over as coach of the Capitals that they have had a couple of good practices in a row between home games. It will be the first time we'll get to see a Hunter coached Capitals team that may have had adjustments made that take more than an hour to practice. It also will be a game that is against a team that was a rival to the Capitals teams that Hunter played on. So we have an important game against a big rival at home after the Caps have had time to practice a few things and should be well rest. Thus the beginning of the "Dale Hunter Era" says me. mark it on the hockey calendars everywhere December 12, 2011.
So let's take a look and baseline the NHL on this day, the day before the Hunter era begins - December 11, 2011. The Washington Capitals are in second place in the Southeast Division; eighth place in the Eastern Conference; and seventeenth place in the league as we await the dawn of the Dale Hunter Era. How did the Capitals get here you might ask, we could debate the points and issues leading up to Bruce Boudreau's replacement till the cows come home and nothing we'd say really matters. We don't need to talk about or debate those things the only thing we need to do is to baseline where the Capitals are and where the teams that matter to them are around them as regards the NHL standings as of today. That way come April 7, 2012 the last day of the Caps' 2011-2012 regular season we'll be able to judge how far they've come from where they sunk to on November 28, 2011. In this week's NHL power rankings the Capitals rank a lowly 16th - the lowest you can be and still be in the rankings but hey at least over the last 10 games the Capitals are now 5-5-0 and playing 0.500 hockey, the comment in the rankings voices the question all of Cap probably shares with me - "Have they turned the corner?" We'll see, we'll see as we measure the progress against the current baseline.
So where do things stand today with the teams that matter to the Capitals?
The first team that matters to the Capitals this season is the Florida Panthers. Formerly the lowly Florida Panthers and now the Southeast Division leading Florida Panthers. The Panthers had been historically one of, if not the worst, teams in the NHL for the past decade. They haven't reached the playoffs since 2000, and haven't won a playoff game since 1997. They haven't even finished higher than third in the Southeast Division since the 2000-01 season. But thanks to a drastic overhaul by GM Dale Tallon, the Panthers have quickly emerged as one of the better and more exciting teams to watch in the League. Today they sit atop the Southeast Division with 37 points, third in the Eastern Conference and tenth in the League. In this week's power ranking the Panthers also rank tenth despite having a record in their last ten outings of just 5-3-2 (0.600 hockey). So far this season the Panthers have proven to me they are real, they have a respectable positive goal differential of +5 and they've played 0.616 hockey over 30 games; 0.667 over 12 home games and 0.556 over 18 away games. These guys are for real. That's really all that matters to us Capitals fans, that and the fact the Capitals really, really should work really hard to NOT loose any more "four point games" to the Panthers. Right now the Capitals are two games ahead of the Capitals and have played 0.554 over the 28 games the Caps have played this season. The Panthers are on track to finish the season with between 94 and 105 points. To catch and pass the Panthers I estimate the Capitals will need to ratchet up their own "game" ~20% and play 0.657 hockey to finish with 102 points; that's a pretty big delta but it could be achievable if the Capitals find their stride now and have a good "run/streak" between now and February 28th. It's also interesting to note that while the Caps and Panthers will face each other three times between now and March 1st, all three of those meetings occur in the month of February and with any luck for we Caps fans will be the most epic and important meetings between the two teams in at least a decade.
The next team that matters to the Capitals is the Eastern Conference lading Philadelphia Flyers - the same Flyers who the Capitals will face off against tomorrow night. If the season ended today, the Capitals would find themselves in the first round of the playoffs facing the Flyers. Over 28 games the Flyers have been playing 0.696 hockey and are on track to finish the season with between 108 and 120 points this regular season. The Flyers are 7-3-0 in their last ten outings and on a 5 game winning streak and they are doing it in spite of average goaltending from their net-minders (2.9 GAA last ten games), and a final and yet is they have a positive goal differential of +20 over 28 games to date (101 GF - 3.607 GF/Game and 81 GA - 2.893 GA/Game). Making up any of the four (4) full games the Flyers are ahead of the Capitals even over the 54 games remaining between now and April looks to be a daunting task. However tomorrow's match up is a four point game in that challenge and all the more reason to look at the game and increase it's importance in the Capitals minds.
The Boston Bruins who are now in first place in the Northeast Division and second place in the Eastern Conference are important to the Capitals. Between now and the end of the season the Caps still have all four of their match ups with the Bruins remaining and if they can manage to pass Florida, they will likely be battling the Bruins for the second seed in the opening round of the playoffs. The Bruins have played 0.661 hockey so far this season and have a whopping and league leading +35 goal differential. The Bruins are on pace to finish the regular season with between 102 and 111 points so it's very likely the Caps will need the Bruins to filter some in order to pass them in the standings even if the Caps can finish with 102 or 103 points. The Bruins are currently ranked atop this week's NHL power rankings.
The fourth place New York Rangers are another team, that even if the Caps have turned things around will still matter and come into play for the Caps this season. the Rangers have played 0.704 hockey over 27 games this season. They are as strong or stronger a team as either the Bruins or the Flyers and have a team goal differential of +23 and a 7-3-0 record in their last 10 games including a 6-1 blowout win over the Florida Panthers in their last outing. The "Rags" are on track to finish the regular season with between 106 and 118 points. They are currently ranked third in the NHL's power rankings.
The fifth place Pittsburgh Penguins are the next team that are highly relevant to the Capitals this season. The Penguins have played 0.633 hockey over thirty games this season despite Sidney Crosby's injury issues which unfortunately for hockey fans everywhere continue with no foreseeable end in sight. The Penguins have a +19 differential and 96 and 106 points. If the Caps have indeed turned things around and can finish with 102 points when they head into the playoffs there is a fair chance their road to Lord Stanley's Promised Land for the Capitals could well once again be through Pittsburgh.
What about the other guys in the East who could make the playoffs you might ask: Toronto, Buffalo, New Jersey, Montreal and Winnipeg.
Well Toronto at 5-4-1 in their last ten games and 13th in this week's NHL Power Rankings looks to be the real deal and could very easily finish the season as high as in 5th place and as low as 7th place with between 88 and 98 points for the season. In other words the Maple Leafs could very easily be the Capitals opponent in the first round of the playoffs, if the Capitals turn things around find a way to either win the Southeast or finish in fourth in the Conference.
The Buffalo Sabres are ranked 15th in this week's NHL Power Rankings, have played 0.552 hockey through 29 games, and have an even team goal differential to date. The Sabres are 3-5-2 in their last ten games and have a less than 0.500 record at home so far this season, while playing 0.727 hockey on the road. This team is an enigma to me but will likely remain battling Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, and Ottawa "on the bubble" assuming the Capitals can move forward on their current path and get off the bubble themselves. If that happens the Capitals likely won't be seeing anyone who finishes seventh or eighth in the Eastern Conference before the Conference finals, if at all.
So the as far as turning things around in the "Dale Hunter Era" the Florida Panthers may well have caught the spirit of things when they were billing the game between the Panthers and the Capitals as a battle for first place in the division and an important bout between the two.
So next up the Flyers at Verizon Center Tuesday Night - Be There or Be Square.
LETS GO CAPS!!!!